LOS ANGELES - Hollywood's holidays are off to a dreadful start: Fewer people went to the movies the last two weekends than during the box-office hush that followed the Sept. 11 attacks 10 years ago.
Domestic revenues tumbled to a 2011 low of about $77 million this weekend, when the star-filled, holiday-themed romance "New Year's Eve" debuted at No. 1 with a weak $13.7 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.
It's the worst weekend in more than three years, since the weekend after Labor Day in 2008, when revenues amounted to $67.6 million, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com. And it comes after an $81 million total a week earlier that had been this year's previous low.
"It's unbelievable how bad it is," said Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
Jonah Hill's comedy "The Sitter" opened at No. 2 with just $10 million.
Divided by this year's average ticket price of $7.96, the combined $158 million haul means only an estimated 19.8 million people went to the movies the last two weekends. Based on the average ticket price, this year's top-grossing film, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2," drew more people all by itself over opening weekend.
The two lowest-grossing back-to-back weekends of the last decade came amid the nation's shock after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when one of the last things on people's minds was catching a film. Revenues those two weekends totaled just $126 million; divided by 2001's average ticket price of $5.65, that means 22.3 million people went to the movies those weekends right after Sept. 11 - 2.5 million more than over the last two weekends.
A couple of bad weekends don't make a trend, yet domestic revenues have been lagging throughout 2011, a year in which many studio executives expected to do record business. Revenues this year are at $9.57 billion, about 4 percent below last year's, according to Hollywood.com.
Revenues this past weekend are down 17 percent compared to the same period last year, when business totaled $91.8 million, led by a $24 million debut for "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader."
The slowdown the last two weeks followed a quiet Thanksgiving weekend, when new movies failed to pack in the projected droves.
"The audience certainly is available. Unfortunately, they have not come out in the numbers they have in the past," said Dan Fellman, head of distribution at Warner Bros., which released "New Year's Eve," whose cast includes Sarah Jessica Parker, Halle Berry, Robert De Niro, Ashton Kutcher, Hilary Swank and Jessica Biel. "I'm hoping this is just a glitch, and starting next weekend, the box-office will expand."
Next weekend begins Hollywood's end-of-year blockbuster frenzy, with the debuts of Robert Downey Jr.'s "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" and the family sequel "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked."
Charlize Theron's comic drama "Young Adult" goes wide after starting in limited release this past weekend, while Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" launches in huge-screen IMAX theaters before expanding to general release the following week.
Studio bosses generally blame bad weekends on bad movies. Yet while critics trashed "New Year's Eve" and "The Sitter," a lineup of well-reviewed, seemingly must-see family films that include "The Muppets," "Arthur Christmas" and "Hugo" so far have done modest business at best.
Hollywood always has insisted it offers inexpensive entertainment compared to concerts, sports events and other costlier options. But many moviegoers complain about high ticket prices, particularly the extra few dollars it costs to see 3-D films, and they now have more entertainment alternatives than ever with their portable devices and big-screen home theaters.
"I still want to think that our business is product driven, but we're about to find out, because we've got some major films coming," said Chris Aronson, head of distribution at 20th Century Fox, the studio behind "The Sitter" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks." "There's a lot of good stuff coming, and I think audiences are going to be primed."
It might be a different story now if one of the upcoming action movies had opened around Thanksgiving, offering Hollywood's main audience - young males - something to see.